ITHACA, N.Y. — Generally, local government coverage does not capture as much attention as crime and courts news, according to our metrics, but several issues did stir conversation and debate this year. Not to mention, it was a big year for local elections and 2018 will have several new faces in local government.

In 2017, some of the stories shared most were the women’s march in January, Ithaca and Tompkins County passing resolutions to be sanctuary municipalities, Cargill and local elections that will bring several new faces to local government. These are some of the issues that got people talking, debating and packing Ithaca Common Council and Tompkins County Legislature chambers.

Curious about other top stories in 2017? Check out our other story roundups:

The 10 most read crime, breaking news stories of 2017

Highlights and fights: the five biggest Ithaca development stories of 2017

1 — Women’s rights spotlighted with march and proclamation

Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Thousands of people filled Ithaca’s streets in January for a Women’s March on Ithaca, mirroring more than 600 marches across the country the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Looking back, the march was a fitting way to start a year that would spotlight women’s rights.

2017 was also the centennial celebration of women gaining the right to vote in New York. 

Related: Suffragists’ portraits and stories celebrated in exhibition at History Center

Tompkins County Legislature also declared 2017 the “Year of the Woman.”

“This day in 2017 in the ‘Year of the Woman in Tompkins County,’ we know we will outlive these times. We live to see old age. We will show our stars and say from this day to the ending of the world, we shall be remembered. We few – but we’re more than a few, this is wonderful – we few, we happy few, we band of sisters, brothers, husbands, sons and parents, we will remember that we fought for each other. We will remember this place, this march, this time, when we stood shoulder to shoulder,” Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen said at the march Jan. 21.

Later in the year, around October,  women in in Ithaca and Tompkins County also added their voices to the national #MeToo social media movement, which brought attention to how many women are sexually harassed and assaulted.

2 — Ithaca and Tompkins County become “sanctuaries”

Ithaca Common Council unanimously votes on sanctuary city ordinance Feb. 2, 2017. Jolene Almendarez/Ithaca Voice

It was no doubt one of the most debated topics of 2017 — Ithaca becoming a “sanctuary city” and Tompkins County also following suit.

In February, Ithaca “added teeth” to its earlier sanctuary city policy passed in 1985 for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees. The updated policy directs that city officials, including police officers, do not ask for a person’s immigration status unless the person is actively committing a crime related to their status.

When drafting a similar resolution, Tompkins County did not use the term “sanctuary county,” but it had a similar purpose. Legislator Anna Kelles spent several months authoring the resolution. For a recap on what the resolution actually means and how it affects local law enforcement, read our break down published in February.

In a statement before Legislature voted on the resolution, the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office said deputies will not ask for immigration status because they “do not have the constitutional authority, intention, nor the personnel to enforce federal laws.”

3 — NYSEG gets green light for project offering alternative to West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline

On right, Martha Robertson gives a presentation in February about Tompkins County exploring an alternative to a proposed Dryden pipeline. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

For several years, New York State Electric and Gas planned constructing a 7.4-mile gas pipeline referred to as the West Dryden Road pipeline or Lansing/Freeville Reinforcement Gas Pipeline Project to meet the demand for the Lansing area and address safety and reliability issues.

It was long debated by local residents. In response, earlier this year, NYSEG drafted an alternative plan that will install four electrically powered compressors placed strategically in the gas distribution system. It’s supposed to be up and running by the 2018/2019 winter season.

In other environmental news, Tompkins County and the Town of Ithaca were commended by New York for strides combating climate change. Both were named Climate Smart Communities in June. 

4 — Tobacco purchase age is raised to 21 in Tompkins County

Anna Kelles, who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, which brought the T21 legislation forward. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

In May, legislators passed a local law to raise the tobacco purchase age to 21 in the county. The new law, which is now in effect, is intended to reduce the number of people of all ages who use tobacco.

Though no one disagreed fewer children should be smoking, public response to the local law was mixed and the resolution did not pass unanimously. People opposed said 18 year olds are adults and should be free to make their own choices.

The new law cites research that shows raising the purchase age to 21 reduces access to cigarettes to people younger than 18. It does not criminalize people who are under 21 for smoking, but it can now penalize vendors for selling to people who are under 21.

Read more here.

5 — Hub of history and culture to be created in Downtown Ithaca

In coming years, a Heritage Center will be created on the Ithaca Commons. With the History Center’s lease expiring at the Gateway Building, local leaders took the opportunity to explore new options to house the community’s collection of local historic materials and artifacts. The expiration of the lease timed well with the sale of the Tompkins Trust building.

When completed, the center will be a hub of culture, tourism and history right in the heart of Downtown Ithaca. Not only will the History Center be housed in the building, but also other local agencies. Some that have been discussed include the Historic Ithaca Library, the Convention and Visitor Bureau’s Visitor Center, the Community Arts Partnership and the Discovery Trail among others.

6 — Some call for halt on expansion of Cargill salt mine

Map of Cayuga Salt Mine. Created by Karen Edelstein.

Some environmentalists have called for a pause on any expansion of the Cargill salt mine. Located in Lansing, the mine has been operating for nearly 100 years and employs about 200 people.

Despite concerns, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued permits for Cargill to install a new mine shaft, which is needed to allow better electrical access, air exchange and a faster way out for its workers in case of emergency. Without the shaft, Cargill has said it will have to cease operations within a decade.

Over the summer, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton called for a halt in salt mine expansion below Cayuga Lake. Lifton and many others have raised concerns about mining under the lake, citing mining incidents in other locations over the years. Lifton and Walter Hang say mining techniques used could put the mine at risk of collapse. Cargill has responded that the DEC performs independent inspections every year, plus other inspections regularly take place.

This topic isn’t brand new in 2017. Near the end of 2016, there was debate about whether Cargill should receive a $640,000 sales tax abatement for the new shaft.

7 — Investigation into the director of the Office of Human Rights

Karen Baer, director of the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

A hearing is underway to determine whether the director of the county’s Office of Human Rights will keep her job.

The county suspended Karen Baer from her post in October and charged her with insubordination for not participating in a county investigation. However, Baer has responded saying removing her as director was in retaliation for her “repeated efforts to speak truth to power and to shine light in dark corners.”

The hearing began in December and will resume this week. It is open to the public. (The hearing was previously held at the Tompkins County Health Department building, but Baer’s attorneys have asked for it to be moved to a more accessible location. Check for an update on the date and location Tuesday.)

The story is long and ongoing. Here are two stories the case so far:

Insubordination or retaliation? Hearing underway regarding director of Office of Human Rights

Digging into the investigation and removal of Tompkins Office of Human Rights director

8 — Taking a hard look at jail overpopulation, re-entry programs and the criminal justice system

Jail overpopulation has been a cause for concern for years in Tompkins County, but in 2017, a comprehensive study examining the issue was completed and recommendations were made.

A report released in July found that a jail expansion is not needed, but highlighted many areas that could be improved with the local criminal justice system. With the 2018 budget, the county has committed to some improvements such as adding another nurse to the jail and expanding mental health staff.

Tompkins County also received unwelcome news in September that it will no longer receive a variance that allows 18 extra beds. The variance expired Dec. 31. Though the report found the jail population will decrease, it will take time for initiatives to have a long-term impact on the daily census of the jail.

Jail overpopulation will likely continue to be a costly issue, on several levels, in 2018 and beyond.

9 — Breaking down budgets for 2018

We can’t say the metrics point to local budgets as a big topic of conversation online, but where our tax dollars are going is important, so we’re adding it to the top stories list.

When the $179 million budget was announced, Tompkins County made housing and reducing the jail population big priorities. Including the potential cost of boarding out inmates in 2018, the county may spend nearly $1 million on programs and personnel related to the jail, re-entry and criminal justice.

Here’s a break down of the Tompkins County 2018 budget.

And if you’re curious to learn more about the City of Ithaca’s budget, where some highlights include funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program and the People’s Budget, read this.

10 — Changes in local government

Results are tallied during the November 2017 election.

Every seat was up for re-election on Tompkins County Legislature, plus there were seats open in towns, villages and Ithaca Common Council. Several seats had challengers, and even if turnout at the polls was average in November, interest in local government soared.

There will be five new legislators on Tompkins County Legislature in 2018 and one new member of Ithaca Common Council. Check out this page for the full election results.

In addition to elected changes, Tompkins County Administrator Joe Mareane and Deputy County Administrator Paula Younger have also stepped down. Batavia City Manager Jason Molino will be the county’s new administrator, responsible for an annual budget of about $180 million. Younger is taking a job at Ithaca College. A replacement for her position has not been decided yet.

In the City of Ithaca, voters favored a proposal to replace the city’s 11 boards, committees and commissions and councils with four new volunteer Advisory Commissions. Here is what that will look like. The city is currently seeking volunteers for the commissions.

Interested in staying up-to-date on local government? Did you know more than 200 resolutions were passed in 2017? Bookmark The Ithaca Voice’s Tompkins County Legislature Hub, where we keep track of all resolutions that go through Legislature and post the schedule for meetings and link to the latest agendas.

Have questions or story tips related to local government? Email Reporter Kelsey O’Connor at koconnor@ithacavoice.com.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.